Could we be a step closer to ending child labour?

by Stephanie Klotz, Stefan Bakker on Mar 10, 2017

For years, brands and retailers have operated with the uncomfortable knowledge that their supply chains are not as 'clean' as they would like. Child labour is still happening within the apparel sector, especially at the bottom of the supply chain and with home-based work - but tackling the problem has been a massive challenge.

Endemic outsourcing to sub-contractors, and then to home workers, makes it difficult to know exactly where clothing is being made - and by whom. And some retailers have not been able to look beyond their tier one suppliers.

GoodWeave has been successfully tackling child labour in the carpet-making industries of India, Nepal and Afghanistan for the past 20 years. Through a business-friendly and community-driven approach, it has managed to map formerly murky supply chains and rescue thousands of children. For consumers, the GoodWeave brand has become a sign of an ethical and responsible carpet.

Now, the organisation is bringing that expertise to five new sectors through its Sourcing Freedom programme, announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. It is supported by The Skoll Foundation, Humanity United, C&A, Target and The Walt Disney Company, alongside C&A Foundation.

CEO of GoodWeave, Nina Smith, says the time is right to do more: “The regulatory environment has really shifted, with several new laws around the world, and we're seeing companies taking more responsibility for their entire supply chain. We also have the UN Sustainable Development Goal to end child labour by 2025. It's created a perfect moment for us to expand."

“In just one village there are as many as 1,000 children. The families have an average or five or six children each, so we cannot simply remove the children from this scenario. As a first step we need to minimise harm.”

Programme Manager, Gender Justice & Human Rights C&A Foundation Anindit Roy Chowdury

Uttar Pradesh pilot

In the apparel sector, GoodWeave, C&A Foundation and C&A are six months into a two-year pilot focusing on the Uttar Pradesh region of India.

It's a massive undertaking, admits Anindit Roy Chowdhury, C&A Foundation Programme Manager for Gender Justice and Human Rights: “The GoodWeave model excites us because at this point there is nothing like it in the apparel sector.

“GoodWeave has been able to achieve complete transparency in the carpet supply chain and we want to test whether we can replicate that success in the apparel sector.”

The pilot is focusing on home-based workers who do intricate embroidery and hand finishing. In these families, children as young as eight or nine can spend hours a day working on orders, keeping them out of school, and in some cases, developing postural defects or problems with their eyesight.

The situation is complex, and sensitive, explains Anindit: “Family members will tell you their children are not being exploited, they are simply supporting the family. They will also say this is the only way their children can learn the family trade.”

The GoodWeave model works with families, communities and sub-contractors to tackle the problem from all angles, but the scale of the issue means the approach needs to be pragmatic too.

“In just one village there are as many as 1,000 children. The families have an average or five or six children each, so we cannot simply remove the children from this scenario. As a first step we need to minimise harm," says Anindit.

Six months into the pilot, GoodWeave has established a number of bridge schools, with financial support from C&A Foundation. The schools make sure children receive adequate support and supplementary education so their learning is not affected. They are also working with families to make sure that if children are working, it is not for more than two to three hours a day.

Trust is another big hurdle: “We want to incentivise change by saying to sub-contractors, 'if you clean up your practices, we will help you get more business'. Sub-contractors that can prove they have zero child labour will be issued a GoodWeave certificate. In a hyper-competitive market like India, that kind of endorsement can be a big boost for business,” says Nina.

Finally, GoodWeave is working with C&A to map its supply chain in the region, and other retailers have shown interest too.

“The mapping piece is a huge undertaking,” says Anindit. “If we look at just three exporters C&A is working with, they in turn can work with up to 15,000 households between them.

“This a new model and that means it will take time to embed, but GoodWeave has selected areas that are the neediest and neglected by NGOs and government support. They could have selected easier areas for this pilot but they didn't, and that is commendable.”